An exclusive interview with John Bell, Director Healthy Planet at EU Commission: “Europe needs an ambitious ‘Green Innovation Deal’”

John Bell, European Commission, at Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin (25 November 2015)

“Europe needs an ambitious ‘Green Innovation Deal’ to accelerate towards our 2030 goals and to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Our 2030 and 2050 goals require decarbonisation at a speed at least six times faster than anything globally achieved so far.” John Bell, Director Healthy Planet at the DG Research & Innovation of EU Commission, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this long and exclusive interview, he talks about the EU Updated Bioeconomy Strategy one year later its presentation in Brussels. “The main task for us in the next years – he says – will be the implementation of the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy. However, to fully deploy the bioeconomy across all of Europe, we need the help and engagement of the Member States and regions”.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

One year ago, the update of the European bioeconomy strategy was presented. At what point is its implementation?

The updated European Bioeconomy Strategy was co-created by several Directorates-General of the European Commission. Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (RTD) is co- owning the updated Strategy with the Directorates-General of Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI), Environment (ENV) and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (MARE). Each of the co-owners, as well as the DG for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC), committed to implementing the fourteen actions that were set out in the Action Plan of the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy.

The implementation of a majority of these fourteen actions started already this year. Several actions are linked to Societal Challenge 2 “Food Security, Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry, Marine, Maritime and Inland Water Research and the Bioeconomy” of our current Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020. Actions on for example “Mobilising public and private stakeholders for research, demonstration and deployment of sustainable, inclusive and circular bio-based solutions”, on “Supporting research and innovation activities on pre- and co-normative research on plastics biodegradability”, and on “Setting up living labs for urban food systems transformation” are based on ongoing projects, public procurements or calls of the current Work Programme of Horizon 2020.

In other actions, we are engaging with our stakeholders at an early stage. Just recently, we had a workshop on Promoting education, training and skills across the bioeconomy. The discussions of this interactive workshop provided us with valuable insights, which will be taken forward in two studies on education in the bioeconomy. Similar, for the action on the Bioeconomy Policy Support Facility, which will provide support to Member States in developing their national Bioeconomy Strategies, we already had three preparatory workshops, in cooperation with the BIOEAST initiative. The Bioeconomy Policy Support Facility will be operational in 2020.

In general, the implementation of the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy has started across the involved European Commission Services. We are on a good track and expect the first results for some of the actions as of 2021.

Two of the innovative aspects of the strategy are the emphasis on the concept of urban bioeconomy and the support for start-ups with the Bioeconomy Investment Platform. What steps has the Commission taken or does it intend to take in this direction?

Yes indeed, the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy states that ‘cities should become major circular bioeconomy hubs’. The urban bioeconomy will play a crucial role in improving the recycling of high value organic residue streams through the production of valuable bio- based products such as bio-based chemicals, fertilisers, feed ingredients and plastics. Nevertheless, the concept of the urban bioeconomy is not new to us. We first recognised the potential and the challenges of the urban circular bioeconomy in Europe in 2015 and started to support these potentials and address the identified challenges through Horizon 2020.

In a first phase, we supported the technological upgrade of innovative value chains to turn urban biowaste and wastewater into innovative bio-based products. Secondly, we supported the integration of these value chains into the urban metabolism of some EU cities, such as Albano Laziale (Italy), Kozani (Greece) and Madrid (Spain). The scope was to improve the circularity of their urban bioresources.

As a third phase, and this is what we outlined in the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy, we want to support cities to launch and implement their urban circular Bioeconomy Strategies by addressing the gap between an urban circular bioeconomy plan and the concrete investments to implement it. We recently published the Horizon 22020 call on Pilot circular bio-based cities – sustainable production of bio-based products from urban biowaste and wastewater. The call focuses on a pilot group made up of at least five cities (and/or clusters of cities) and aims to build their technical, economic and legal expertise needed for leading to concrete investments in projects to valorise urban biowaste and wastewater through the production of safe and sustainable bio-based products.

The Circular Bioeconomy Investment Platform will eventually be called the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund (ECBF). The Fund is being designed by the European Investment Bank with support of the European Commission via our Horizon 2020 Framework Programme.

The ECBF will focus mainly, but not exclusively, on contributing to fill the funding gaps faced by innovative circular bioeconomy projects by providing them with access to finance, in particular in the form of debt, equity or quasi-equity. The Fund would invest and leverage additional investments in projects in the scale-up, demonstration as well as commercial and market development stages in the areas of agriculture and farming, aquaculture and fishery, forestry, biochemicals, biomaterials / biocomposites and nutrition.

Overall, the Fund’s objective will be to facilitate private sector involvement in bioeconomy projects in line with the Fund’s Investment Guidelines and as such enabling the Investee Companies to raise additional funds and address a market-funding gap.

The selection of an Investment Manager to set up and manage the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund has been launched in October 2018. The Fund should be launched by the end of 2019 and operational from 2020.

The political and economic debate in Europe and in many Member States emphasizes the Green New Deal. What role can the circular bioeconomy play in this scenario?

Europe needs an ambitious “Green Innovation Deal” to accelerate towards our 2030 goals and to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Our 2030 and 2050 goals require decarbonisation at a speed at least six times faster than anything globally achieved so far. Currently available technologies, even when combined with much greater investment, more ambitious regulations and radical behavioural change, will simply not suffice. Radically new technologies and disruptive innovation are needed to fuel the required societal transition. The pressure on our planetary boundaries through rapidly accelerating climate change, increasing environmental degradation, resource depletion and dramatic loss of biodiversity require unprecedented investment and a shift to new circular, digitally hardwired, sustainable systems. Sustainable bioeconomy, healthy food systems, clean industries, low-carbon electricity and heating, net zero cities, green housing/schools/buildings, and restorative biodiversity need a forward-looking generational innovation challenge within the political narrative of European Green Deal.

In this context, the shift to a circular and sustainable bioeconomy – a core pathway to reach carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050 as identified in the Commission’s “Clean Planet Strategy” – needs to be completed. Research, Innovation and Investment are key enablers in this transition and drivers to deploy the potential of Circular Economy Action Plan and the updated Bioeconomy Strategy. The updated European Bioeconomy Strategy aims to balance the exploitation of the economic potential of the natural resources, to provide for the needs of the society, and to protect, maintain and restore land and sea ecosystems and biodiversity. The impact of food systems on our environment will have to be greatly reduced while offering to European farmers and fishermen concrete opportunities to reap the benefits of the transition. Circular bioeconomy solutions that are already capable of turning fisheries by-products into new products are already contributing to creating new economic opportunities in coastal areas. In addition, significant existing R&I investment in developing a sustainable ocean economy across EU sea basins, inland waterways and ocean coastline will play an important part in helping EU to reach the European Green Deal objectives.

Today, Europe is recognized worldwide as a reference point for policies in favour of the bioeconomy. But still the concept of bioeconomy is not clear to the citizens, a non-secondary aspect to create a real market for bio-products. What is your point of view in this regard?

Indeed, we see that many citizens do not understand the bioeconomy. Key to overcome this issue are communication activities at national, regional and local level. We already financed several projects in the past and just published a call in the current Horizon 2020 Work Programme. As one action of our updated Bioeconomy Strategy, the project will strengthen the European Bioeconomy Network, which is a network of projects and initiatives currently funded by the European Commission to promote, communicate and support all bioeconomy sectors at the national, regional and local level. The projects belonging to the European Bioeconomy Network will define a joint consolidated action plan of communication activities to initiate or reinforce the existing synergies, and maximise the opportunities to, and the impact of, promoting the bioeconomy. The communication activities of the European Bioeconomy Network will take place not only in those countries/regions which have adopted a bioeconomy strategy, but also in those where the bioeconomy potential has not yet been exploited.

There are many success stories in the bioeconomy and it is up to us and to the European Member States to communicate about these good examples.

What are the next steps that the new Commission will take to further promote the development of the circular and sustainable bioeconomy?

The main task for us in the next years will be the implementation of the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy. However, to fully deploy the bioeconomy across all of Europe, we need the help and engagement of the Member States and regions. As of now, nine EU Member States have a dedicated national Bioeconomy Strategy. The cross-sectoral nature of the bioeconomy makes it difficult to develop such strategies, we have seen it in our own co- creation process. Yet, it will be crucial to develop a dedicated Bioeconomy Strategy in order to guarantee that the huge biomass potential in Europe is managed in a sustainable and circular way.

To help Member States and regions in this process, and as already mentioned before, our Bioeconomy Policy Support Facility will be operational as of 2020. Moreover, we are currently designing a Bioeconomy Member State Forum, which will offer the opportunity to network, to capitalise on existing groups, to exchange knowledge and best practices, facilitate interaction and mutual learning, and enhance interregional cooperation to support bioeconomy developments at national, regional and local level. The first meeting of this Forum will take place in 2020.

We have set the scene in Europe with our updated Bioeconomy Strategy, but fully deploy the circular and sustainable bioeconomy we will need the engagement of our partners on Member State and regional level.


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